2. Go primitive. We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They've also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order. Friends call to chastise each other (well, anyway, my friends call to chastise me) for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen newfangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative.
At such times, I become downright Amish, religiously committed to avoiding all modern communication technology. I unplug phones, computers, intercoms, and fax machines, risking opprobrium because I know that if I don't lose touch with some of the people who are trying to reach me, I'll lose touch with myself. The overconnected me is a cranky, tired fussbudget. Silence is golden if it keeps me from broadcasting that fretful self into my network of treasured relationships.
3. Play favorites. Your ability to connect is a resource much more precious than money, so manage it well. Make a list of everyone to whom you feel bonded, then consider what kind of return you're getting on your investment. Which relationships make you feel robbed or depleted? Which ones enrich you? Notice that there are many ways for "connection investments" to pay off. One person may be good at helping you solve relationship problems, while another can fix your home computer and another makes you laugh. A baby's trust may be the only return you get on a massive investment of time and energy, but it can feel like winning the lottery.
It may sound cold-blooded to say you must divest yourself of the relationships that give you consistent losses, but unless you do this, you'll soon run out of capital, and you'll have no connection energy left to invest in anybody. So please, decide now to deliberately limit the time and attention you spend on "low yield" relationships. Above all...
4. Get rid of squid. Squid is my word for people who seem to be missing their backbones but possess myriad sucking tentacles of emotional need. Like many invertebrates, squid appear limp and squishy—but once they get a grip on you, they're incredibly powerful. Masters at catalyzing guilt and obligation, they operate by squeezing pity from everyone they meet. They can make you feel entwined to the point of rage, desperate to escape their clutches, unable to see a means to extricate yourself.
Getting a squid out of your life is never pretty. (Excuses don't work—tell a squid you're on your way to a colonoscopy, and they'll come along to sit beside you, complaining, while your doctor performs the procedure.) Since you can't make a graceful exit, don't try. Scrape off squid any way you can. Tell them straightforwardly that you want them, yes them, to leave now, yes, now. This will be unpleasant. There will be lasting hurt feelings. Don't worry. Squid love hurt feelings. They hoard them, trading them in for pity points when they find another victim—er, friend. Let them go, their coffers bulging.
5. Be insensitive. A friend I'll call Zoe once went to a world-famous psychologist to discuss her recurring nightmares. After months of waiting for an appointment, she finally met the therapist, who asked why she had come.
"I'm having terrible dreams," Zoe explained.
"Yeah?" grunted the famous psychologist. "So what?"
Zoe blinked, then stammered, "Well, they keep me awake."
"Well...," stammered Zoe, "I guess I never thought of it that way." And her nightmares went away, never to return. Once she stopped treating bad dreams like the end of the world, her mind had no reason to replay them.
I'm not suggesting that you say "So what?" every time someone turns to you for help, but I like to think that therapist was famous for a reason. I suspect he could feel the difference between something that required deep discussion and something that didn't. He was willing to be insensitive, alerting Zoe to her own hypersensitivity.
This is a very compassionate way to use your own psychological instincts. Instead of connecting with every person's problems, let yourself feel whether someone really needs your attention, or whether the best gift you can give might be a little abruptness.
We Hear You!